10 Suggestions for Getting More From the Bible
By Rev. Matt Marino
We have a revealed religion. God, outside of time and space, can only be known if He chooses to make himself known. This self-revealing, Christians believe, occurred through nature, the Hebrew Scriptures (which we call the Old Testament) and ultimately through his son, Jesus Christ, whose story is told in the Christians Scriptures we call the New Testament. Together they form the Bible. The Bible is between 2000 and perhaps as much as 3400 years old. It was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16) but done so by particular people in particular places dealing with particular circumstances. Therefore interpreting the Bible to apply it to our lives today can be complex.
Getting Started: The Bible contains 66 books in two main divisions: The Old Testament and the New Testament. The Bible has a grand overarching narrative of God working to make right what is wrong with the world. This working occurred first through God lifting up a people (Israel) and, since the coming of Christ and his death and resurrection, God working to redeem all of humanity through Christ. Some of the books in the Bible are long (Psalms, the Jewish hymnal) some are very short (Philemon, Jude). Books are named after their author (Luke), a main character (Esther), the recipients (Ephesians), a significant event (Exodus), or a general description (Proverbs). Several books are distinguished by numbers. For example, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians refer to different letters that Paul wrote to a church in a city named Corinth. Two helpful online tools are www.biblegateway.com (for finding passages) and www.youversion.com (for reading the Bible). The Bible is broken down into chapters and verses (Chapter 4, verse 2…or 4:2) to help readers re-locate passages. These divisions are later additions with the chapters broken out in the 13th century and the verses in the 16th.
Here are some principles for reading the Bible…
- Read with an Open Heart. A friend of mine says, “We allow the Bible to bother us but not to bless us.” When we only accept what we understand we refuse to grow. In a way the Bible is like marriage vows: Young people only barely know what they are getting into on their wedding day. They stand before family and friends and pledge to give themselves to a greater vision for a life together with God’s help. Reading the Bible is nothing but an academic exercise if you do not come to God’s Word with a desire to open our lives more fully to God and be changed,. In the words of the Lambeth Quadrilateral, “The Old and New Testaments are the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation.”
- Keep the “Big Picture” in Mind:
- The Bible is the story of God’s working to save wandering humans in history in 66 books under one cover. It is not a rule-book, systematic theology, or a magic wand.
- Look for two meta-concepts: Covenant and Kingdom. God deals with us by making covenants to enable us to be with him and then sends us forth in the purposeful work of building his kingdom. Over and over you will see God’s people are blessed in order to be a blessing to others.
- The Great Commandments (Love God, Lover your neighbor, Luke 10:27) and the Great Commission (share God’s love, Matt. 28:19-20) form Jesus’ commentary on the “big picture.”
- Seek to Answer the Two Key Questions: What did it mean to the original hearer? What should we do with it today? Everything below is a “how to?” for these two questions…
- Read according to Literary Genre: a Psalm is a song. Job is a play. Deuteronomy is a sermon. Acts is history. Revelation is an apocalypse. Those are all different genres of literature. Read them as such.
- Generally Assume the Clear Meaning of Words: Occam’s Razer holds true! The books of the Bible were meant to be understood by the original hearers, who would have heard them read publically. “Do not gossip” does not need much interpretation. However, some of the Bible was written in symbolic language: Old Testament prophets often used metaphor, Jesus taught in parables and the book of Revelation record’s dreams. Luckily, the authors usually key the readers in that they are using symbolic language.
- Read in Context:
- Scripture interprets Scripture: Plenty of New Testament passages tell you what an Old Testament passage meant.
- It cannot mean to us what it could not have meant to the original hearers. “They were all in one accord” could not refer to a car built by Honda. (Not following these principals is how cults start!)
- Try to determine (from both the context and tradition) whether a topic being dealt with is transcultural (applying to all cultures of all times) or culture-bound (only apply to a specific time and place). Example: Ceremonial codes in Leviticus are about worship. NT Sin lists are “moral” and do not change. Head coverings, eating marketplace idol food, foot washings, and Paul’s personal preference for celibacy are not inherently moral matters.
- Apply the following principles when interpreting prescriptive (i.e. tell you what to do) texts (such as Paul’s letters):
- When the identical particulars occurs today God’s Word to them is God’s Word to us. (Phil 1:27-2:18)
- When different particulars exist see if there are principles you can apply (Meat sacrificed to idols/causing a brother to stumble in 1 Cor. 10)
- Beware of being dogmatic about issues that do not have a uniform witness in Scripture: women in ministry, retention of wealth, food offered to idols. (“How to Read the Bible” by Fee & Stuart)*After doing all of that, you will still come to some really oddball conclusions without the following:
- Read in Community: Remember that in ancient times the Scriptures were intended to be read in public. It is wise to do the same today. Grapple with the text with others: the church here and now).
- Read in Light of Tradition: The early church were the first to have to deal with what was unclear (or even in conflict) in the biblical texts. An understanding of how the earliest Christians interpreted scripture is critical. Don’t be afraid to stand on the shoulders of giants! (Tradition- the church through time).
- Pray What You Read: One way to deepen your prayer life is to allow the words of the Scriptures to shape your prayers. Praying the Bible helps us to pray for the right things.
- Apply What You Read: Reading the Bible isn’t a mental exercise. We go to Scripture to be changed. Our problem is usually not that we don’t know enough of the Bible but that we don’t do enough with what we already know. (James 1:22-25)
Bonus: Don’t use the Bible to beat others. When God speaks to you from the Scriptures embrace it as God’s word to you- not necessarily to all of humanity. A good general guideline is to be rigorous on our self and gentle towards others. God is at work in them as well…and most likely has not invited you to be the fourth person of the trinity.